Let’s not get carried away by self-driving cars and the sharing economy: they won’t make Smart Cities better places to live, work and play
June 3, 2015 6 Comments
Will we remember to design cities for people and life, enriched by interactions and supported by transport? Or will we put the driverless car and the app that hires it before the passenger?
I’m worried that the current level of interest in self-driving cars as a Smart City initiative is a distraction from the transport and technology issues that really matter in cities.
It’s a great example of a technology that is attracting significant public, private and academic investment because many people will pay for the resulting product in return for the undoubted benefits to their personal safety and convenience.
But will cities full of cars driving themselves be better places to live, work and play than cities full of cars driven by people?
Cities create value when people in them transact with each other: that often requires meeting in person and/or exchanging goods – both of which require transport. From the medieval era to the modern age cities have in part been defined by the tension between our desire to interact and the negative effects created by the size, noise, pollution and danger of the transport that we use to do so – whether that transport is horses and wagons or cars and vans.
A number of town planners and urban designers argue that we’ve got that balance wrong over the past half century with the result that many urban environments are dominated by road traffic and infrastructure to the extent that they inhibit the human interactions that are at the heart of the social and economic life of cities.
What will be the effect of autonomous vehicles on that inherent tension – will they help us to achieve a better balance, or make it harder to do so?
Autonomous vehicles are driven in a different way than the cars that we drive today, and that creates certain advantages: freeing people from the task of driving in order to work or relax; and allowing a higher volume of traffic to flow in safety than currently possible, particularly on national highway networks. And they will almost certainly very soon become better at avoiding accidents with people, vehicles and their surroundings than human drivers.
But they are no smaller than traditional vehicles, so they will take up just as much space. And they will only produce less noise and pollution if they are electric vehicles (which in turn merely create pollution elsewhere in the power system) or are powered by hydrogen – a technology that is still a long way from large-scale adoption.
And whilst computer-driven cars may be safer than cars driven by people, they will not make pedestrians and cyclists feel any safer: people are more likely to feel safe in proximity with slow moving cars with whose drivers they can make eye contact, not automated vehicles travelling at speed. The extent to which we feel safe (which we are aware of) is often a more important influence on our social and economic activity than the extent to which we are actually safe (which we may well not be accurately aware of).
The tension between the creation of social and economic value in cities through interactions between people, and the transport required to support those interactions, is also at the heart of the world’s sustainability challenge. At the “Urban Age: Governing Urban Futures” conference in New Delhi, November 2014, Ricky Burdett, Director of the London School of Economics’ Cities Program, described the graph below that shows the relationship between social and economic development, as measured by the UN Human Welfare Index, plotted left-to-right; and ecological footprint per person, which is shown vertically, and which by and large grows significantly as social and economic progress is made. (You can watch Burdett’s presentation, along with those by other speakers at the conference, here).
The dotted line at the bottom of the graph shows when the ecological footprint of each person passes beyond that which our world can support for the entire population. Residents of cities in the US are using five times this limit already, and countries such as China and Brazil, whose cities are growing at a phenomenal rate, are just starting to breach that line of sustainability.
Tackling this challenge does not necessarily involve making economic, social or personal sacrifices, though it certainly involves making changes. In recent decades, a number of politicians such as Enrique Penalosa, ex-Mayor of Bogota, international influencers such as Joan Clos, Exective Director of UN-Habitat (as reported informally by Tim Stonor from Dr. Clos’s remarks at the “Urban Planning for City Leaders” conference at the Crystal, London in 2012), and town planners such as Jeff Speck and Charles Montgomery have explored the social and economic benefits of cities that combine low-carbon lifestyles and economic growth by promoting medium-density, mixed-use urban centres that stimulate economies with a high proportion of local transactions within a walkable and cyclable distance.
Of course no single idea is appropriate to every situation, but overall I’m personally convinced that this is the only sensible general conception of cities for the future that will lead to a happy, healthy, fair and sustainable world.
There are many ways that technology can contribute to the development of this sort of urban economy, to complement the work of urban designers and town planners in the physical environment. For example, a combination of car clubs, bicycle hire schemes and multi-modal transport information services is already contributing to a changing culture in younger generations of urban citizens who are less interested in owning cars than previous generations.
And this is a good example that it is not set in stone that cities must inevitably grow towards the high ecological footprints of US cities as their economies develop.
The physicist Geoffrey West’s work is often cited as proof that cities will grow larger, and that their economies will speed up as they do so, increasing their demand for resources and production of waste and pollution. But West’s work is “empirical”, not “deterministic”: it is simply based on measurements and observations of how cities behave today; it is not a prediction for how cities will behave in the future.
It is up to us to discover new services and infrastructures to support urban populations and their desire for ever more intense interactions in a less profligate way. Already today, cities diverge from West’s predictions according to the degree to which they have done so. The worst examples of American sprawl such as Houston, Texas have enormous ecological footprints compared to the standard of living and level of economy activity they support; more forward-thinking cities such as Portland, Vancouver, Copenhagen and Freiberg are far more efficient (and Charles Montgomery has argued that they are home to happier, healthier citizens as a consequence).
However, the role that digital technologies will play in shaping the economic and social transactions of future cities and that ecological footprint is far from certain.
On the one hand modern, technologies make it easier for us to communicate and share information wherever we are without needing to travel; but on the other hand those interactions create new opportunities to meet in person and to exchange goods and services; and so they create new requirements for transport. As technologies such as 3D printing, open-source manufacturing and small-scale energy generation make it possible to carry out traditionally industrial activities at much smaller scales, an increasing number of existing bulk movement patterns are being replaced by thousands of smaller, peer-to-peer interactions created by transactions in online marketplaces. We can already see the effects of this trend in the vast growth of traffic delivering goods that are purchased or exchanged online.
I first wrote about this “sharing economy“, defined by Wikipedia as “economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data and talent”, two years ago. It has the potential to promote a sustainable economy through matching supply and demand in ways that weren’t previously possible. For example, e-Bay CEO John Donahoe has described the environmental benefits created by the online second-hand marketplace extending the life of over $100 billion of goods since it began, representing a significant reduction in the impact of manufacturing and disposing of goods. But on the other hand those benefits are offset by the carbon footprint of the need to transport goods between the buyers and sellers who use them; and by the social and economic impact of that traffic on city communities.
There are many sharing economy business models that promote sustainable, walkable, locally-reinforcing city economies: Casserole Club, who use social media to introduce people who can’t cook for themselves to people who are prepared to volunteer to cook for others; the West Midlands Collaborative Commerce Marketplace, which uses analytics technology to help it’s 10,000 member businesses work together in local partnerships to win more than £4billion in new contracts each year, and Freecyle and other free recycling networks which tend to promote relatively local re-use of goods and services because the attraction of free, used goods diminishes with the increasing expense of the travel required to collect them.
But it takes real skill and good ideas to create and operate these business models successfully; and those abilities are just those that the MIT economists Andy McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson and Michael Spence have pointed out can command exceptional financial rewards in a capitalist economy. What is there to incent the people who posess those skills to use them to design business models that achieve balanced financial, social and environmental outcomes, as opposed to simply maximising profit and personal return?
The vast majority of systematic incentives act to encourage such people to design businesses that maximise profit. That is why many social enterprises are small-scale, and why many successful “sharing economy” businesses such as Airbnb and Uber have very little to do with sharing value and resources, but are better understood as a new type of profit-seeking transaction broker. It is only personal, ethical attitudes to society that persuade any of us to turn our efforts and talents to more balanced models.
This is a good example of a big choice that we are taking in millions of small decisions: the personal choices of entrepreneurs, social innovators and business leaders in the businesses they start, design and operate; and our personal choices as consumers, employees and citizens in the products we buy, the businesses we work for and the politicians we vote for.
For individuals, those choices are influenced by the degree to which we understand that our own long term interests, the long term interests of the businesses we run or work for, and the long term interests of society are ultimately the same – we are all people living on a single planet together – and that that long-term alignment is more important than the absolute maximisation of short-term financial gain.
But as a whole, the markets that invest in businesses and enable them to operate and grow are driven by relatively short-term financial performance unless they are influenced by external forces.
In this context, self-driving cars – like any other technology – are strictly neutral and amoral. They are a technology that does have benefits, but those benefits are relatively weakly linked to the outcomes that most cities have set out as their objectives. If we want autonomous vehicles, “sharing economy” business models or the Internet of Things to deliver vibrant, fair, healthy and happy cities then more of our attention should be on the policy initiatives, planning and procurement frameworks, business licensing and taxation regimes that could shape the market to achieve those outcomes. The Centre for Data Innovation, British Standards Institute, and Future Cities Catapult have all published work on this subject and are carrying out initiatives to extend it.
Cities create the most value in the most sustainable way when they encourage transactions between people that can take place over a walkable or cyclable distance. New technologies and new technology-enabled business models have great potential to encourage both of those outcomes, but only if we use the tools available to us to shape the market to make them financially advantageous to private sector enterprise. We should be paying more attention to those tools, and less attention to technology.